Sinful Patterns in the Soul
The Christian who is a spiritual "new man" still retains old patterns of selfishness and sinfulness in the soul. These action and reaction patterns often present themselves in "old ways" of behavior that are not indicative of the character of Christ. These old patterns of behavior misrepresent who we are in Christ, but they do not necessarily cause us to revert to being an "old man." The "old man" is the unregenerate person, and while the spiritually regenerated "new man" may misrepresent the character of the One who is the basis of his identity, he is not in constant danger of apostatizing and becoming an "old man" again.
Though the Christian is no longer identified as a "sinner" (Rom. 5:19), for his new spiritual identity is that of a "saint" (Eph. 4:12), there remains within the soul of a Christian many residual patterns of sinfulness. These are the patterns of how we learned to act and react as we dealt with situations and persons during our previous days of sinfulness. Yes, the Christian is "dead to sin" (Rom. 6:2,11) and no longer a "slave to sin" (Rom. 6:17), meaning that sin, with its personified satanic source (cf. I John 3:8), has no right to reign as master in our lives and hold us under its tyranny. In terms of forming our spiritual identity as "sinners" and exercising spiritual mastery of our lives, the power of sin has been expelled and exiled. But within the soul, Paul can still write of the "sin that indwells me" (Rom. 7:17,18,20,21,23). This "indwelling sin" is not a substantive "hunk of evil" within the Christian, nor is it the personified presence of Satan within the Christian, but it is the patterns of sinful action and reaction within the desires of our soul. Ancient Christian writers often referred to the Christian experience of dipsychia, the divided soul or psyche, divided by the "desires of the flesh" and the "desires of the Spirit" (Gal. 5:17).
The apostle Paul could refer to Christians as "perfect" (Phil. 3:15), and yet just three verses previously he had confessed that he had not "already become perfect" (Phil. 3:12) behaviorally. The perfecting process, the maturing process, and the growth process of the Christian life is the continuing process of sanctification within the soul of a Christian.
Writing to the Galatians, Paul asked, "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?" The obvious answer is the latter, for we only receive the Spirit of Christ in regeneration by grace through faith. Following with another question, Paul asks, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Gal. 3:2,3). Again, the obvious answer is to deny that the ongoing process of sanctification and perfection can be effected by a fallacious "independent self" who falsely thinks it can auto-generate and self-produce divine character by the "works" of self-effort and performance in accord with some behavioral standards of conduct and morality that have been codified into "Christian law." All Christians are in the process of dealing with their idiosyncratic patterns of sinfulness and selfishness, but the means of overcoming our "indwelling sin" is not by legalistic efforts to conform, but by allowing Christ the Lord to overcome such by His character.
Writing to the Christians in Asia Minor in the latter years of the 1st century, the apostle John noted the necessity of Christians being aware of and admitting to their sinful behavior patterns. He was combating the nascent Gnosticism that advocated an elitism whereby one could be spiritually elevated above all sin. John replied, "If we (Christians) say (as the developing Gnostics say), that we have no sin (tendencies, propensities, or expression), then we are deceiving ourselves, and the Truth (Jesus Christ - cf. John 14:6) is not in us" (I John 1:8). But "if we confess (Greek homologeo - agree and concur with God that our sin is contrary to His character) our sins, then he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin (applying the forgiveness that resulted from the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ), and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (by the cathartic overcoming of Christ's character)" (I John 1:9).
The Christian faith is 'extreme.' Once it has 'found' Christ, it sees the obligation to break completely with everything that is contrary to Him, no matter how much this break may cost. It sees the obligation of unswerving fidelity to His love, no matter how difficult that fidelity may sometimes appear to be. Finally, it sees the need to rely completely on Him in perfect trust, abandoning our whole life into His hands and letting Him take care of us without our being able to see how He intends to do so. This is the genuine dimension of Christian faith.
When the living Lord Jesus resides in and is vitally active within a Christian, He cannot and does not overlook the selfishness and sinfulness of a person's motivations, attitudes, and behavior. To do so would be to deny Himself, His character, the essential purpose of His Being. Since the personal relationship the Christian has with Christ is a relational union that establishes our spiritual identity as a Christ-one, the indwelling Christ must be allowed to express Himself in the Christian individual by overcoming all selfishness that is contrary to His character. "All things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do" (Heb. 4:13), and He will lovingly expose and root out all that is not consistent with Himself. Christianity is Christ, and true to Himself He will counter and overcome all that is contrary to His absolute character until He is "all in all" of the Christian's life.
This is the sure sign of being Christian - the Lord Jesus Christ functioning as Savior in the Christian, manifesting His "saving life" (Rom. 5:10) to "save us from our sins" (Matt. 1:21). To refuse this sanctifying work of Jesus Christ is to abort the objective of God's glorification in the Christian life, to sell our birthright for a "mess of pottage" (Gen. 25:29-34).
Even when Christ has been welcomed within, that old self, largely unrecognized, will still reveal its presence in a thousand ways by self-will, self-importance, self-sufficiency, or by a self-consciousness, or a self-depreciation that paralyzes. God's Spirit has to take every forward-moving soul through a drastic process of self-exposure. That root of sin has to be looked in the face. Its presumptuous claim to be a sufficient source of wisdom and ability has to be exposed in its falsity.
The subtleties of our selfishness seem to be endless. When we are angry, it is often a selfish response to being offended. When we insist on being happy, it is but a selfish desire to have everything "go our way." When we are bored, it may be evidence that we selfishly expect life to be constantly exciting. When we are critical, it may be a selfish expectation that others should be perfect. When we worry or react in panic, it is often a selfish denial that God is capable of controlling the situation. When we are disappointed with our own failure and feel condemned, is it because we selfishly think we could have done it better? When we snub another person and refuse to talk to them, we might selfishly think that the other person is not worth relating to or communicating with. When we talk too much, we selfishly clamor for attention and think that people should listen to us. When we are tardy, it may be because we selfishly think that others' time is not as important as ours, and they should wait until we decide to arrive. When we overeat, is it because we selfishly think our tastes and hungers should be satisfied to the fullest? When we drink to excess, it is often because we selfishly think we can drown our pain, and ironically feel in control of the situation. Our attempts to get rich are often evidence of our selfish trust in Mammon. When we ogle pornographic images, we selfishly think that titillating images can satisfy our desires for intimacy. Is it not obvious that the self-stimulation of masturbation is a self-pleasuring, driven by the same self-gratification that pursues improper sexual activities outside of the God-ordained marriage relationship? We could go on and on.
Contemporary Christians are amazingly adept at glossing over and covering up their sin patterns. In the disavowal of "denial," they refuse to consider their selfish motivations. Many think that it impinges on their "spirituality" to admit weaknesses, inordinate cravings, fantasies, preoccupations, besetting sins, etc. The unregenerate world is sometimes more honest in owning up to their obsessions, compulsions and addictions, as well as their phobias, denials and fears, as they gather together in accountability groups, sensitivity groups and anonymity groups and seek to deal with their destructive propensities by self-help and self-improvement programs. Christians must face up to their selfishness patterns, without any attempts to minimize or rationalize, and without any delusion of their ability to overcome their sinful propensities by their own power and effort.
Sometimes Christians think they can keep their sins secret and hidden, at least from other Christians, if not from God (cf. Heb. 4:13). Behind closed doors they indulge their selfish sins, or even within their minds they engage in fantasies rationalizing that if they do not "act out" externally they have avoided sin. Jesus explained that sin is internal before it is ever externalized, when He said, "Everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart" (Matt. 5:28). When the will of man consents by saying, "I would if I could. I'm willing," the sin-decision has already been made by a volitional choice, constrained only by the unavailable opportunity.
Many Christians only want to consider sin in their lives when distressing situations threaten. In situations of calamity, affliction, illness, or medical emergency, they vow and resolve to cease from their patterns of sin. They may be temporarily quieted within by such relinquishment to God's way in their lives, but it is often a temporary victory over their sinful tendencies, for when the ordeal is over, the sinful patterns break out again. The same pattern is evident in those who address their sin only when "the sin has found them out," and their guilty actions have been exposed to those around them. Appearing contrite and ashamed, they vow to reform their behavior. When we seek to deal with sin only because of the consequences that are troubling us, it is only a selfish desire to be relieved of the consequences of public shame.
Self-selected categories of submitting our sinful patterns to the sanctifying work of Jesus Christ are another ploy that Christians often employ. We conveniently compartmentalize our lives, thinking that we can selectively offer one self-chosen area of sinfulness to the saving function of the Savior, and reserve others for another time. In this way we seek to control our own sanctification, rather than allowing the Lord Jesus Christ to control what He wants to do in our lives. Our pride knows no bounds in seeking to avoid what Jesus Christ wants to do in dealing with our selfishness.
We are often blind to what is happening within us when we tolerate selfish patterns, particularly when God has revealed His desire to deal with them. Our heart can "be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin" (Heb. 3:13). Our conscience can be seared by repetitive unwillingness to surrender to the Spirit. We develop an indifference to God's desires, and insensitivity to God's direction. We wonder why we do not seem to have any constructive creativity of thought, and do not participate in the joyous spontaneity of being "used of God." Lack of comfort, peace, and rest leaves us unsettled. The overflow of genuine Christian ministry is thwarted as we "quench the Spirit" (I Thess. 5:19).